Like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, it took his death for Pete Seeger to be universally acclaimed. But in my little corner of the universe, he always was.
Once upon a time – say about half a century ago – when just about the entire Jewish community in Canada was politically progressive, Pete was an integral part of our lives (everyone called him Pete). Even as most Jews in post-war Canada climbed out of the working class into the heady heights above, the camps they sent their kids to still preached peace and justice, and Pete and the Weavers were their musical accompaniment.
Earlier Pete had his Almanac Singers, and if the album I still have is anything to go by, they had more passion than talent. But when you were celebrating the “Union Maid” (the story of a union organizer who wasn’t afraid of the company’s goons and finks and the deputy sheriff in the pocket of business), or “Talking Union” (organize a union and you’ll get increased pay, decreased hours and time off “to take your kids to the seashore”), or above all, the workers’ anthem, “Solidarity Forever”, for the Union makes you strong – well, brothers and sisters, when you were bellowing out those songs at the top of your young idealistic lungs, it hardly mattered whether anyone was singing on key or not. Or whether workers’ solidarity actually existed.
I saw him first in the late 1950s in a common room at the University of Toronto. Even now I can conjure up the spirit of the evening as if it were yesterday. Pete sang his leftie heart out in that small crammed space, while we roared along, to his and our great pleasure. If he had declared the socialist revolution had begun that night and commanded us to march, we would have followed him anywhere.
I’ve seen him a few times since, most memorably about 15 years later at Massey Hall, when so much had changed. On the one hand, progressive Canadians had vehemently opposed America’s aggression against Vietnam and gave their hearts to the murdered Martin Luther King. But at the same time, many of them had now become successful professionals. I’ll not name names to protect their current status, but really, they had moved on.
So that evening was one final nostalgic tribute to their idealistic past. The big hall was jammed, and I swear I knew just about everyone there. It took Pete maybe one whole chord to get the entire auditorium on their feet belting out those old favourites with him. As always, his music turned an audience into a community for a few thrilling hours. Everyone knew at least some of the words to all of the songs, whether recalling the lost hope of the Spanish civil war or trying to believe that We Shall Overcome.
He was, of course, an ornery bugger. David Dunaway’s largely celebratory biography, How Can I Keep from Singing, reveals Pete to have always been difficult, stubborn, uncompromising, even with his comrades. But we surely know by now that genius, even among the good guys, comes at a price. It was precisely his unshakeable conviction in his principles and sense of integrity that was responsible for his finest hour, when he stood up to the “fascists,” those American politicians and media who persecuted him for his “anti-American” songs about peace, justice and unions and threatened to destroy his folk-singing career.
Pete gave the only response he knew how to give: This land is my land, and no mob of two-bit Joe McCarthy clones was going to tell him how to live in it. Sure enough he was blacklisted from all public appearances for years, the baying politicians finding ready complicity among the corporate sponsors and media moguls who sold him out without a second thought. They were tough times, all right, but Pete being Pete, all they did was confirm to him that he’d been right in the first place.
Near the end, it seemed for one brief shining moment that his entire life’s crusade had finally triumphed. It was January 2009 in Washington, Pete was almost 90, and history was being made. He was invited to perform for the newly-elected President at a gigantic party to mark the inauguration. So with the Obama family sitting in the front row singing along, Pete teamed with Bruce Springsteen to perform his own This Land Is My Land. It truly seemed to symbolize that a new, just America had at long last been born. The shame is that he lived long enough to become disillusioned, and to see that his old banjo – his “machine that surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” as he called it –was needed as much now as ever. So long, Pete, it’s been good to know ya. And we shall overcome, one day.